“Where are you from?” a Thai man asked me as we were prepared to cross the border into Cambodia. “I’m American,” I replied thinking nothing of it. He proceeded to laugh as he examined me a little closer, “Maybe you’re half.”

That most common question asked of a traveler, “where are you from?”, usually requires a two-part answer from me. While a home country or home town would normally suffice–in my case, America– I have to follow it up with “…but I’m half-Vietnamese.” If I don’t add that footnote I usually get confused looks or am bluntly told that I don’t look American.

Throughout Asia the locals weren’t shy to tell me what I look like, whether I asked for their opinion or not. I’ve been told I look Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, Nepali, Korean, Cambodian, Thai, Indonesian, Turkish, and Taiwanese. I’ve had a Chinese man ask me if I spoke “English or Espanol?” I’ve had a flight attendant greet my husband in English and me in Arabic. Mark and I often joke that people mistake me as an immigrant when he is actually the American immigrant from Great Britain!

Britnee as a kid

I am an American! I was born to a Native American mother and a Vietnamese father.

I once had a waiter ask me “Why do you not like rice?” when I ordered a baguette with my curry two nights in a row. He might have thought it was blasphemous that this Asian-looking woman never ate rice with her curry, but after months of rice I was just excited to see bread on the menu again. In Nepal a woman guessed that I was Vietnamese-Canadian, the closest guess out of all my encounters–although I have no idea how she figured me out so well.

Those were just a few instances that I noticed the confusion, but there were other times I wouldn’t realize it. Mark would often tell me of the stares he’d see me get from locals, turning heads as I passed by, and looking me up and down with a befuddled expression on their faces. I can only imagine what they were thinking.

These reactions took me by surprise, not being what I expected when meeting locals around the world. I understand why people back home can’t guess my heritage since where I live the majority of the population is Caucasian, but for some reason I naively thought that the rest of world would clearly see that I was American.

All these interactions made me wonder what made up the American me? Here’s the mathematical answer: I am 1/2 Vietnamese, 1/8 Polish, 1/10 Blackfeet Native American, 1/32 Italian, 1/32 French, and 1/4 unknown. I was born in San Jose, California, and lived in the States 100% of my life. All that equals 100% American, including the common curiosity of one’s heritage that many of us share.

Britnee and her dad at a relative's gravestone

Paying respects to my dad’s sister’s gravestone in Vietnam.

My mother was from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana and my father, originally from southern Vietnam, moved to Utah as a deaf refugee after the Vietnam War. This provided me with a unique childhood being raised by parents from two vastly different backgrounds.

I ate Thanksgiving pies aplenty with my Catholic Native American cousins on the reservation, received crisp $2 bills in red envelopes on Vietnamese Tet from my Buddhist grandma and spent Sundays at the deaf Mormon ward with my dad. Disabilities, ethnicities, and religions have all blended together throughout my life.

Growing up in Utah, I experienced the typical American childhood at the same time: attending public school, playing city recreation softball, watching plenty of Nickelodeon, eating Hershey’s chocolate, riding bikes with friends and playing with Barbie dolls.

I wish I could say my upbringing was always this diverse and wonderful, but unfortunately my parents divorced after eight years and the rich cultural experiences I had as a child quickly disappeared. Like Derek Zoolander, I began to lose a sense of who I was.

Ok, so it wasn’t that dramatic. As I grew up, school and work took up most of my time and study of my heritage was pushed aside. However, I always had a desire to get back to my roots, especially my Vietnamese side. An opportunity to do so finally came last month when I met up with my dad in Vietnam. He had just returned for his first time in over 40 years and together we reconnected with his many cousins that he hadn’t seen since he was a young boy during the Vietnam war.

Despite many years of separation, we were doted on as beloved family during our visit even though we didn’t speak Vietnamese and they didn’t speak English or sign language. Thankfully, my father’s girlfriend was able to translate all three languages for us.

While I thought visiting relatives would help me realize more of the Vietnamese in me, it ended up only reaffirming the fact that despite my physical appearance, the language barrier was the first of many differences between us. I couldn’t help noticing that I felt more American when I was in Vietnam, yet I felt more Vietnamese when I was in America. So where does that leave me?

Britnee's Vietnamese Family

Meeting my dad’s cousins for the first time in Vietnam.

It’s a strange in-between feeling, being multiracial, that only 3% of the American population can relate to. I look different from others everywhere I’ve been and sometimes feel differently from those at home. I doubt that there is anyone else in this world who has the exact mixed-ethnic background as mine; however, I am sure there are others out there who have their own unique mixed ethnicity and have felt the same way I do. I’ve since realized that this growing minority group is part of a new global emergence: the homogenization of human genes.

This realization really sunk in while reading “The Jolly Pilgrim” by Peter Baker, in which he said sociologists predict race and ethnicity divisions will eventually become irrelevant. Evolutionists have also stated that the ease of modern travel has led to a rise in human migration; therefore, mating has greatly increased between those from different and distant countries. This happened with my parents and is also the case with my British-born husband and me.

Experts claim that the homogenization will gradually blend hair color, skin color, facial features, and eye shape. That explains my unique multiracial look, a combination of at least six different ethnicities that has confused locals in almost every Asian country we’ve visited–and we haven’t even set foot in South America yet!

Britnee's family in Vietnam

“You have Vietnamese skin, but a Western nose.”

I didn’t intend my travels to be a form of self-searching, but it happened nonetheless through many conversations and experiences from Nepal to Vietnam and back again. In the end, I have come out with a much better understanding and perception of myself and I’m thankful for the locals and my family overseas who helped renew my curiosity about my background.

As for answering the question, “who am I?”, I believe my relatives described me best: “You have Vietnamese skin, but a Western nose.” I suppose that could be taken either literally or figuratively.

9 Responses

  1. Wendy

    You are lucky to have a mixed heritage and gorgeous! You should come to visit Hawaii. It seems like most people are mixed here. I think Maggie Q from Hawaii (who is a wonderful actress in the recent/current series “Nikita”) is an interesting person to look to as far as finding someone with a similar ethnicity. She is Vietnamese and Polish, but of course both of you have other ethnicities as well. There is something deeply beautiful about being so unique. This is a very interesting article! Thanks for sharing! I hope you will continue to have amazing experiences and safe travels!

    • Britnee Johnston

      Thanks Wendy! I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii to be with others who looked like me. :) How funny about Maggie Q also being Polish, I’ll have to read up more on her. Thanks for reading and following our travels!

      • Carole (Your Gramma)

        Love reading about your travels and marvel at you grasp for writing. Your Mom says you get that from me. lol
        Anyway, I don’t remember if you mentioned that your great-grandmother, Mary Wood, was full-blooded Polish??
        Love, Gramma

      • Britnee Johnston

        Thanks Gramma! I knew I was part-Polish, but forgot which side of the family that came from…haha. Thanks for the reminder. Love you too!

  2. Peter Baker

    Great stuff! Sounds like you are having a ball out there! Excellent work. Enjoy. :)

  3. Peter Baker

    Britnee – just read this in full on a train up to Yorkshire. Very well-written blog piece. Very interesting. Great observations and it really does sound like you are having a ball. Seize the day, carry on the fantastic work in Asia, and go lightly …

    Warm regards

    • Britnee Johnston

      Thanks Peter! Yeah these travels has made me analyze myself and my family more than ever before…which I think is a good thing. Thanks for reading and also for writing a great book that really made my mind think!

  4. Christine

    I just discovered your blog, as I am in the middle of planning my own RTW trip next year. I can somewhat relate to the question “what are you?”, as I’m half Japanese and half white. I usually find that only other Asians can tell that I’m mixed though. I’m looking forward to exploring your blog and getting ideas for my own trip!

    • Britnee Johnston

      I’m excited for you! I think planning a RTW trip is a lot of fun. Yeah it’s interesting being mixed and seeing how those from other countries reacted to how I looked. It seemed like most people in Asia were not shy to ask where I was from and why I looked the way I did. Hope you have a great trip!